Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Finding Mary Magdalene: the Heinz Chapel

(Mary Magdalene Picture courtesy University of Pittsburg.)

I attended an organ concert at Heinz chapel this past week, my first visit inside the famous Pittsburgh landmark at the University of Pittsburgh. Now the SW Pennsylvania area abounds in Gothic revival architecture, so I had never visited this particular chapel despite dropping my organ-loving daughter there for concerts. So I walked into this chapel rather inured to stone vaults and repeated arches and even Tiffanny windows.

However this chapel was built on a college campus with a college committee choosing the images inside: the result had me gasping and ignoring organ music. (Hey I hear a lot of Bach already. . .) A full fifty percent of the images in the Heinz chapel's stained glass were women. And not just Biblical women - though that would itself be stunning - the Heinz chapel's famous stained glass include Native women (Kapiolani, Kateri Tekawitha, Pocahontas), literary women (Emily Dickenson, Elizabeth Barret Browing), women from multiple denominations (Hannah More and Elizabeth Fry and Saint's Dymphna and Eunice and Clare),and histories (Abigail Adams, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale). Look carefully and find a small section of window dedicated to the Women's Christian Temperence Union:

(detail of Florence Nightingale)

What also astounded me was the huge window devoted to Saint Mary Magdalene. For many Christian women all over the world, Mary Magdalene has such important significance - as one of the apostles following Jesus. She is one of the most important examples of a woman and teacher in the Jesus movement. She was present at Jesus' death, burial and the first person to see the resurrected Christ. In apocryphal texts she is the "apostle to the apostles." I know Christian women who identify Mary Magdalene with Wisdom, Sophia, the feminine side of Christ, a symbol of women's equality in church and worship, and as an example of the female side of God. All those views are especially valid for those of us sitting in pews every Sunday hearing about God the Father and the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. (Hey I am sick of creator, redeemer, sustainer language as well. . .)

The presence of this huge window in the Heinz Chapel, dedicated to the Magdalene, just awes me. Her window stands equal with the Virgin Mary, with Joseph and with other apostles depicted. Such a physical demonstration of women's equality and the Magdalene's importance is amazing.

Years ago I took an art and religion course at the Pacific School of Religion with the fun and wonderful professor Doug Adams. With Professor Adams, we explored the art of church, what buildings tell us about religion. Professor Adams literally encouraged to explore the PSR chapel by crawling under pews and rolling in the aisles. (None of this was surprising to me as I grew up in Frank Lloyd Wright's First Unitarian Universalist Church in Madison, Wisconsin, where the UU adults left us kids alone and we literally climbed the limestone walls that Wright so carefully designed. . .) Professor Adams wanted us to understand that the visuals of a church teach as much as any sermon.

What does that say for all the churches with pictures of male apostles, male ministers in the hallway, Jesus pictures everywhere, and no women to be found? The overwhelming message is that religion and the divine are male. Whether Christian or Jewish or Muslim, those of us from the patriarchal religions grow up without images of female divine.

The Heinz chapel blew me away because, pagan or christian or Hindu or whatever type of Goddess worshiper I am, I still live unaccustomed to seeing women anywhere in religion. Yet I stood in the Heinz chapel, ignoring the music, to instead see that rarest of things: pictures of women - all types of women - as holy.

1 comment:

  1. I would love to have your permission to repost this excellent article on my blog, Gnostic Nunnery.